Dave Desmarais: 1958-2004

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 24, 2004

David Desmarais was City Paper‘s dry cleaner for years, and he became friends with many of its sales staff as a result. In the editorial department, too, Desmarais was regarded as a friend, but even more so as a vital force in city life.

As a small-business owner, he wanted Baltimore to do well, but his true motivation as a civic booster derived from his role as a community activist and resident – though he sometimes admitted deep disappointment in the city’s directions, especially during its bleakest years in the late 1990s. He died of cancer Nov. 12 at the age of 46.

Desmarais was a man on the scene, always present at festivals, films, political events, taverns, concerts, and government hearings, always ready to start a free-ranging conversation, offer a news tip, comment on the outrages of local leaders, or constructively critique City Paper, whose writers became very familiar with the sound of his calm, steady voice, hearkening from Northeast Baltimore, or receiving e-mails from him—his address was ilovebaltimore@aol.com. (His license plate read “bawlmer”).

Desmarais moved here from his native Boston when he was still a toddler. His father, Ken Desmarais, took to the airwaves as a WCBM-AM radio jock, and Dave took to his new neighborhood, Northwood. Graduation from Calvert Hall College High School (1976) was followed by enrollment at Randolph Macon College in Virginia, where he earned an English degree. After that, he worked in retail sales downtown and, later, for the Downtown Partnership business association.

By 1990, he’d gotten into the dry-cleaning business, and his routes for pickups and deliveries added to his impressive knowledge of local culture, history, and architecture.

Desmarais was also a community activist. He helped found the Herring Run Watershed Association, a local environmental group, and Communities Organized for Responsible Development, which monitors Harford Road economic development. He also served as president of the Moravia-Walther Community Association.

At the Nov. 20 memorial service for Desmarais, held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Lutherville, brother Doug Desmarais recalled that, before he succumbed to cancer on Nov. 12 at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Baltimore County, Dave made a last-minute change in his own memorial plans.

“One of the things we talked about was this gathering,” Doug Desmarais said. Dave ultimately opted against “going to a dive on Harford Road for crabs and Natty Boh” to commemorate his Balto-centric life. Instead, though he was not a member of the church, he decided that a service where his siblings—Doug and sister Suzanne Vinyard—practice their faith was fitting.

Anthony Tomassetti, who shared a birthday with Dave Desmarais, rued that he’ll miss an annual tradition: drinking a mutual beer to one another on Feb. 16, no matter where each was at the time. He commended Desmarais for his curiosity, intellect, and individuality, and recalled that the dry cleaner/activist “forced local political-signage laws to be enforced” in Baltimore City—a crusade for which City Paper dubbed Desmarais “Baltimore’s cherub of political-sign justice.” Tomassetti used the title “passionate pilgrim of Baltimore” to describe Desmarais, and pointed out that Mayor Martin O’Malley sent Desmarais a “very nice letter” before his passing.

“That Dave, he knows almost everything,” was a common remark made about Desmarais, Tomassetti continued. “I fully expect he will be debriefed in heaven on current affairs by everyone from Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., to John Lennon of the Beatles.”

Put that roster around a table of crabs and beer at a Baltimore local, and Desmarais would know he’d reached Nirvana.

 

Bill Myers’ Many Friends

This collection of signatures at the William J. Myers Pavilion in Curtis Bay brings back a torrent of memories about City Hall in the 1980s. Schaefer and du Burns, of course, but also: Mimi di Pietro, Edgar Silver, Chris Delaporte, Frances Reeves, Joe DiBlasi, Ben Brown, Frank Gallagher, Tom Waxter, Jacqueline McLean, Mike Curran, Frank Kuchta, George Della, Rikki Spector, Phil Jimeno, Ron Mullen, Brian McHale, Tony Ambridge, and Jody Landers. That’s some serious company honoring Bill Myers, whose significance was elusive to me, but clearly potent and widely understood by many others.

Working Skiffs: Overlooked as a kayaking destination, Baltimore and the Bay make for excellent native paddling

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 22, 2002

When it comes to sea kayaking, Monterey has nothing on Baltimore. A tourism industry focused on the waterfront? Check. Tidal wetlands to explore? Hey, we live on the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, with thousands of miles of tidal shoreline. About the only sea-kayaking attraction we don’t have that the Northern California coast does is sea otters–and sea kayaks.

In Monterey, throngs lounging in the hotels, bars, and cafés stretched along the water’s edge survey the Pacific coast as flotillas of kayaks bob by in the swell, many of them en route to Elkhorn Slough, a small estuary whose tidal wetlands are the area’s paddling gem. In Baltimore, the Inner Harbor promenade attracts constant crowds to the waterfront, yet rarely do they see a kayak gunk-holing around the harbor basin. And except for a few select areas, sea kayaks–portable, sleek paddle craft with closed decks–remain maritime oddities along Chesapeake estuarine shores.

The sparse popularity of a sport to which this area is so perfectly suited is inexplicable to Joel Beckwith, manager of the sports-equipment company Springriver Corp.’s local store. Since 2000, Beckwith, at work on a paddling guide to the Chesapeake, has been making a sea-kayak study of the Delmarva Peninsula, starting in Havre de Grace and heading south to Cape Charles, Va., then north on the Atlantic Ocean side to Lewes, Del. Along the way, he’s seen “very, very, very few kayaks. A lot of places we didn’t see anybody other than work boats. It’s amazing.”

Maybe it’s the water. Around Baltimore, it’s downright nasty. Trash, runoff, and the city’s now-famous sewage-system problems (requiring $900 million in repairs over the next 14 years) taint much of the Patapsco, as does industrial pollution, much of it embedded in the river’s sediments. And the Chesapeake as a whole isn’t exactly pristine, what with Pfiesteria and mycobacteriosis eating away at the fish and the declining numbers of crabs and oysters. But that’s the nice thing about a sea kayak–you get in the water, but you don’t have to get wet (except maybe a few splashes here and there, or in the unlikely event of a capsize).

Or maybe it’s Baltimore’s tendency to resist new things. Although kayaks have been around for eons–ancient Eskimo vessels inspired today’s varied designs–the market for kayaks in the United States has been booming. Just as Baltimore never really caught on to the dot-com revolution before it ended, the kayak craze has been passing us by.

No big deal. For those who do kayak in Baltimore and the bay–including yours truly–the local lack of interest leaves more territory to explore without fellow paddlers intruding on our adventures. Whether it’s barhopping from Locust Point to Fells Point, nosing up dark tunnels under the city’s streets, surfing with the breeze off Fort McHenry, or poking around wetlands that used to be shipping terminals, Baltimore offers kayaking possibilities that are nothing if not varied. And if cityscapes don’t float your boat, a short drive takes you and your vessel to the natural environs off Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Cross the Bay Bridge and the paddling options are virtually limitless.

In the city proper, there are precious few decent put-in spots: the low dock next to the Korean War Memorial in Canton, Ferry Bar Park in Port Covington, and the boat ramp next to Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill. Further down the Patapsco, Fort Armistead and Fort Smallwood–both city-owned parks with boat ramps–provide additional water access. If you don’t own your own boat, city dwellers can join the Canton Kayak Club (www.cantonkayakclub.com) and use its kayaks and equipment, which are kept on docks at Tide Point in Locust Point and Tindeco Wharf in Canton.

For kayaking on somewhat cleaner waters, head out to one of three nearby state parks: Sandy Point (by the Bay Bridge near Annapolis), Rocky Point (where the Back River enters the bay near Essex), and Gunpowder Falls’ Hammerman Area. The latter, at the end of Eastern Avenue near Chase, is also home to Ultimate Watersports (www.ultimatewatersports.com), which rents boats and helps new paddlers learn the ropes. Regular paddlers who use these parks can save on entrance fees by purchasing a yearly pass, which costs $60 and provides access to all Maryland state parks.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Eastern Shore by kayak is to plan your own trip. DeLorme’s Maryland Delaware Atlas & Gazetteer (www.delorme.com), which combines road-map information with topographic detail, can get you where you want to go. After locating your destination, pay a visit to the Maryland Geological Survey (either at 2300 St. Paul St. or at www.mgs.md.gov) and procure more detailed maps. The quantity of Eastern Shore territory that is navigable by sea kayak is astounding, especially between St. Michaels and Crisfield, where much of the coastline is untouched by development.

Despite the smallness of Baltimore’s community of sea kayakers, there are plenty of ways to get involved and to keep abreast of activities. Springriver Corp. (6434 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, [410] 788-3377) and REI (63 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium, [410] 252-5920) both sell kayaks and boast knowledgeable staff who can help get you on the local waters. The Greater Baltimore Canoe Club (www.baltimorecanoeclub.org) serves as a gathering point for local paddlers and hosts outings. And the newly hatched SeaKayak Web site (www.seakayak.ws) gives in-depth information about kayaking on bay waters. (One of SeaKayak’s hosts, Stephen Rohrs, taught me to roll in a sea kayak–after many unsuccessful attempts.)

Still, Baltimore is no Monterey, no sea-kayaking mecca. And it’s not likely to become one. As Springriver’s Beckwith says, “I’ve been promoting the sport in the Baltimore area for 20 years and I’ll be damned if it’s made a bit of difference.” Even in a place as eccentric as Baltimore, a kayak remains an enigma on the water. And that’s fine with me.

The “Dead Zone” Stirs: Belated renewal slated for West Baltimore Street

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 11, 1998

For generations the 800-1000 blocks of West Baltimore Street in Poppleton have been a thorn in the side of city planning officials. Millions of dollars in public investment over several decades have been sunk into this stretch of once-historic cityscape that now consists largely of vacant lots, the legacy of neglected storefronts and rowhouses the city acquired and then demolished.

Today, nearly all of the city-owned properties on this three-block stretch are slated to be rebuilt as private homes or apartments, holding out the promise that the long-dormant corridor can be rehabilitated and returned to the tax rolls. But the city’s track record with regard to the neighborhood has made skeptics of area residents, who are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the fresh development plans for what many morosely call the “dead zone.”

On the north side of the 800 and 900 blocks, a development team made up of Atlantic Investment LLC; Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse; and Banks Contracting wants to build 100 rowhouses with garages. “It’s what they call ‘Georgetown-style’ townhouses,” says Atlantic’s attorney, Claude Edward Hitchcock. Hitchcock did not say how much the development would cost to build, but “funding is the issue” in the company’s ongoing exclusive negotiations with the city Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) over the properties.

The Atlantic site is located in the federal Empowerment Zone, a special district in which tax incentives and federal subsidies are available to boost job creation and urban renewal. The proposal was presented last summer to the Village Center of Poppleton (VCP), a nonprofit formed to oversee Empowerment Zone activities in the community.

Doris Hall, board chair of VCP, says the organization has “agreed in concept” with the Atlantic Investment team’s plan as presented to the group last summer, but she adds VCP hasn’t heard anything from the developers in “quite some time.” “If we don’t have some feedback,” Hall said during a March 6 meeting of the Village Center’s land-use committee, “we may want to change our commitment.”

Hitchcock says his perception is that the Poppleton community “is fairly excited” about the development because residents “did not want that street to be retail and did want additional middle-class families,” the market Atlantic is targeting. Hall agrees the middle-class flavor of Atlantic’s plan is in keeping with VCP’s desires: “We need more taxable income so that people vote more and have some influence” over the city’s decision-making process for the area.

Past plans to redevelop the Atlantic site have caused extensive controversy in the community. In 1979, a City Council bill to change the properties’ zoning from business to residential was defeated, but into the early 1990s HCD continued to base plans for the area on the defeated residential zoning. This irked residents who knew the land was zoned for businesses and hoped to see a commercial revitalization there.

In January 1991, the council considered a resolution calling for an independent audit of HCD’s use of federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) in Poppleton. The resolution, which did not pass, raised numerous questions about the city’s use of the federal funds. Poppleton residents say they’ve never gotten an adequate picture of how approximately $1.5 million in CDBG funds earmarked for redevelopment of what are now the Atlantic properties has been spent. In particular, concerns have been voiced about allocations of $100,000 for a temporary park in 1982 and $50,000 for public improvements in 1991, both in the 800 block of West Baltimore Street, where there is no tangible evidence of a park or recent improvements.

The $1.5 million does not include millions more in CDBG funds that went toward the relocation of the New Gold bottling plant, which stood at 926—944 W. Baltimore St. before it was demolished last month. In 1992, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development criticized as “excessive” the city’s proposed use of $5.5 million in CDBG funds for the plant’s relocation. No plans have been announced for the former New Gold site.

Nearly $1 million more in CDBG funds has been sunk into preparing the 1000 block of West Baltimore Street for renovation and redevelopment. On this block, HCD is working with the Frederick Avenue Development Corp. on a proposal to demolish and redevelop four city-owned historic properties and renovate parts of two others. Frederick’s current plans are for apartments and some commercial space.

In January, the city Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation approved the plan, which would save 1001 W. Baltimore St.–a circa-1830s structure the commission considers the most historic building remaining in the Poppleton area–and the arched facade of 1011 W. Baltimore. Frederick obtained development rights to these properties in 1993; at the same time it purchased 11 other properties on the same block for $150,000, about a quarter of their assessed value. Frederick offered to buy the 11 renovated properties after the previous developer defaulted on several city and state loans used to fix them up.

Frederick’s board chairperson, Leonard Moyer, did not return a reporter’s phone call. Neither did his attorney, Theodore Potthast.

Betsy Waters, president of the Hollins Market Neighborhood Association, said during the March 6 VCP committee meeting that her group wants “not to see any more rental developments” in its nine-block area of jurisdiction, which includes the Frederick proposal. But the neighborhood association has not taken an official stand on Moyer’s plans.

Some residents worry the two historic structures pegged for partial renovation, 1001 and 1011 W. Baltimore St., won’t survive the demolition of the surrounding properties. Their skepticism is based on an occurrence last month at nearby 946 W. Baltimore St. The historic, structurally sound corner building at that address was razed without a required permit when a city demolition contractor wrecked the former New Gold plant. Community leaders say they were told by city officials that the unpermitted demolition was an accident.

Moyer’s plans for the property have generated anxiety in the Hollins Market neighborhood since his company bought the parcels. In 1993, when Frederick acquired the 1000 block properties from the city, community leaders testified before the city Board of Estimates that they were worried Moyer would be an absentee landlord. Their concerns proved unfounded–Moyer can be seen on his property daily, perched in a chair on the sidewalk or chatting with passersby. And he has kept up his properties, although court records show Frederick is currently being sued by a contracting company that alleges Frederick owes $25,000 in unpaid bills for renovations done in 1994.

Ultimately, according to Hall, VCP hopes to see the West Baltimore Street corridor in Poppleton become a “corridor of health-related businesses and offices,” a strategy grounded in the hope that the proximity of the University of Maryland Medical Center and Bon Secours Hospital will attract health-care businesses. She also expresses hope that a land-use plan currently being prepared by VCP, to be completed in the coming months, will provide the impetus for actual redevelopment and bring to an end decades of controversial and thus far fruitless efforts to revitalize West Baltimore Street.